Siakam says goodbye as ‘Dores top MSU

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In Vanderbilt men’s basketball’s chase for a NIT spot, a January 17th road loss to Mississippi State continues to hold the Commodores back. Vandy avenged said loss to the Bulldogs Wednesday night at Memorial Gym with a 66-56 comeback victory as the ‘Dores continue to grind out wins thanks to some great second-half play in the last few contests.

–       VU has made a habit of sleepwalking through the first half of their most recent games before flipping a switch in the second half. Vandy has been outscored by 26 points over the past three first halves, but have outscored opponents by a whopping 51 combined points in the second halves. The halftime adjustments the team has made have been impressive, but tonight’s 14-point second half margin largely came as the result of increased defensive effort. MSU entered Wednesday’s game shooting 31% from three this season, just 295th nationally. The Bulldogs, however, defied the scouting report in the first 20 minutes as they shot 6-7 from behind the arc in building a double digit lead. Rick Ray’s squad was bound to come back down to earth in the second half, (and they did, finishing 6-10 from three) but a 2-3 zone and better effort helped stymie the Bulldog’s shooting as well.

–       Vandy jumped out to a six point lead fairly quickly in the second half, and it looked like the Commodores’ superior talent might carry them through. Lots of turnovers and bad shot selection, however, kept VU from pulling away. Wade Baldwin forced a few shots in this game, but I’m ok with that as long as the Vandy point guard limits his turnovers (he did that tonight, with seven assists and only one turnover). Baldwin laid a couple of stink bombs against Mississippi State and Kentucky on the road in his first two starts since winning the job back from Shelton Mitchell. Since then, the freshman from New Jersey has averaged 11.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.8 steals and 2.3 turnovers in 33.2 minutes per game on 43% shooting, 53% from three, and 80% from the line. That is a pretty incredible stat line for a freshman, with the only blemish being Baldwin’s low conversion rate from inside the arc. It’s common to see freshmen guards struggle finishing at the rim, so I would expect Baldwin to improve on that next year. Talk about a cornerstone player, though.

–       With 1:13 left in the game, James Siakam grabbed an offensive rebound and was fouled as the ‘Dores looked to close out the win with a seven point lead prompting an excited high five from Kevin Stallings. Playing in his last game at Memorial, Siakam brought energy when the rest of the Vandy roster played a little bit too cool, and the senior forward played a huge role in this game with his 12 points and 7 rebounds. This game seemed to me like a microcosm of Siakam’s entire season, as he brought the #BambaMentality every day and put together as efficient of a season on offense that you’ll see from a role player/energy guy. Siakam’s 121.6 offensive rating in conference play coming into the game was good for third in the entire SEC, and his offensive rebound percentage for the entire season (14.4%) represents the 22nd highest rate in all of Division I. With a .629 shooting percentage and an exceptional 77% from the free throw line, it’s no wonder that Siakam is one of the most efficient frontcourt players in college basketball. His usage rate of 19.5 describes what we all know: Siakam is not a star, but a role player. He is, however, one of the truly elite role players and glue guys in the entire country. I’d take him on my team any day.

–       Stallings summed up Siakam’s evolution and his role this year after the game, saying, “He’s a great senior in every respect. He’s always been the right kind of example.” Having covered the team this season, I can testify that Siakam is one of the politest, friendliest people I have ever met. He puts legitimate thought into every question he answers, and does not sulk after he has a bad game or after a disappointing loss. I cant think of a better mentor for such a young team, and if this vintage of the ‘Dores gets to the NIT Siakam will have been a major reason why. Coming into the season, I felt that VU really wouldn’t miss Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller much. Odom had a nice, underrated senior year, but neither Odom nor Fuller really brought much beyond the box score (although, both were capable of scoring outbursts that won last year’s team some big games). Siakam brings elite intangibles, including effort and leadership, all while consistently putting up solid box score stats the last two seasons. He will be missed.

–       Over the last few days, I’ve become slightly less optimistic about Vandy’s NIT prospects. The Commodores’ RPI still hovers around 100 due to a 3-7 road record. For comparison, West Virginia had the lowest RPI of any team to get a NIT at-large bid last season at 88, but the Mountaineers played in the strongest league in the country and racked up 5 wins over NCAA tournament teams, 4 of which were over top-6 seeds. Playing in the SEC, Vanderbilt simply doesn’t get as many opportunities as teams in the Big 12 do, and they’ve blown the seven chances for top-50 wins they have had. A win at Ole Miss Saturday could put the ‘Dores in good position, as top-50 road wins always represent the building blocks of a good postseason résumé.

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